Random Conjectures

"Act locally; bitch globally."

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The strange case of the Malaysian Airliner

“Tell me, Moriarty, have you ever had a better porterhouse steak than what I have set before you?”

“I do wish, Holmes, that you would not call me ‘Moriarty’. I am a simple professor of mathematics, and that is probably the only resemblance I have with that villain. That said, though, it was a wonderful repast. The steak was pan-fried beautifully, with olive oil and butter, seasoned perfectly. And the Russian Imperial Stout that you served with it paired superbly. Thank you for dinner here again.”

“You are most welcome, old friend. Well then, would you mind if I simply called you ‘M’, and allowed me my own illusions as to your eminent capacity to have become another ‘Napoleon of Crime’, had you wished it?”

“If you insist. And I suppose, for my part, that I should call you ‘H’ as well.”

“That’s just as well. Instead of that sleuth of sleuths, I am but an idle and retired gentleman of leisure, whose occupations these days extend only as far as fine cooking and the brewing of beers, and the occasional vinting of wines.”

“Rather more than that, H. You’ve managed to distill your beers into quite fine whiskys, and your wines into equally fine brandies.”

“Ah, mere trifles, sir. Good food and drink are but a couple of hobbies of mine. Speaking of which, M, would you care for some of my brandy and a cigar in my study?”

“I would love to, H, but I do have to get home to my wife and children. What with the law these days, it would not be safe for me to drive home after several pints and a snifter or two.”

“Pish, I say, M! And tush as well! Do please join the twenty-first century. There are these excellent, albeit oddly named, companies called ‘Uber’ and ‘Lyft’, which provide folk like you and me with rides home when we’ve had a bit too much to drink. I would be happy to call, and to pay for, your ride home. And in the morning, I can drive your car to your home, and take public transit home, or make use of the same services that would get you safely home this evening.”

“Well, as I am on sabbatical, H, I do not have to prepare for classes tomorrow. I will happily accept your kind offer.”

The two old friends rose from their dinner table, and H. took the dishes to the sink, briefly rinsed both them and the cutlery in the kitchen sink, and placed plates and flatware in the dishwasher. That done, H selected two crystal snifters from one of the kitchen shelves, and with a silent gesture, bade M. follow him to the nearby study. A sign on the study door grandly announced: ‘Cigars and Brandy will be served in the War Room’. H opened the door, to reveal a room lined with bookshelves laden with a myriad of books, and at one corner, a desk with a closed lap-top. Two leather covered chairs with a small table between them were the only furniture other than the bookshelves and the laptop. On the table were a crystal flask containing a dark brown liquid, and a humidor. H placed the two snifters on the table, sat in one chair, and gestured M into the other.

“It is obvious, H, that you called me to dinner tonight, and bade me stay, because you wanted to tell me something of import. Shall we dispense with the pleasantries, then, and get down to the matter at hand?”

“You know me well, M. But please indulge me, and allow me first to fill your glass, and trim and light your cigar.”H did so, and served himself as well, before speaking again.

“Do you recall the unpleasant matter of a few years ago, when a Malaysian jetliner, rather than making its accustomed flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, instead disappeared, never to be seen nor heard from again?”

“To call that event ‘unpleasant’ would be the height of understatement, H. Several hundred people were on that flight. Their families grieve their loss. No one knows for certain what happened, but it is supposed that all on board that flight perished, somehow.”

“I think that I know what happened, M.”

There was a brief pause. Then– “If it were anyone other than you that said that to me, H, I would be apt to rise from this excellent chair, and depart under my own steam, or gasoline, as it were. My family came from nearby Dutch Indonesia. This is not, at least for me, a joking matter.”

“I do not jest, M. I am in earnest here. I fear that I know what happened then and there.”

“Many believe they know what happened, H. Some say that the ‘plane was shot down by government forces, either Vietnam, or China, or the U.S., or Malaysia. Others say that it went to a secret base in wherever, where the passengers are somehow languishing. Finally, others say that the ‘plane was driven by the pilot to crash into some sea. Shall I go now to your kitchen, tear off a sheet of aluminium foil, and fold and fashion for you a tinfoil hat, H?”

“There is no need for you to do that, M. I would suggest, however, that we both address ourselves to the task of smoking our cigars, before they need to be relit.”

They did so. H poured a few drops of brandy from his snifter into a shot glass that was on the table, and dipped the end of his cigar into the glass to moisten it. With a silent gesture, H bade M to emulate him in that effort. M did so, and gave a slight smile to acknowledge his pleasure at this new vice.

After a time, H said, “No, M. Like Isaac Newton, who said, “Hypotheses non fingo”, I do not fashion hypotheses. I look at the facts, and I allow them to lead me to reasonable conclusions. And like my namesake, I try not to hypothesize in absence of the facts.”

“But what are the facts, H!” M burst out, in apparent frustration. “To my mind, I’ve seen blessed little in the way of any facts in this matter.”

“Ah, M, but we do, finally,” said H. A journalist at The Atlantic has finally risen from being a stenographer of the current party line of cant, to being a reporter of those facts. Have you read the recent article?” H walked to the desk on which the closed laptop lay, and pulled out from the desk under it a tablet. He proffered it to M.

M raised a hand of refusal: “Why don’t you state what you consider to be the facts, H, and let us consider those in turn. I would be happy to read the article later. But right now, you have a hobby horse which you wish to ride. By all means, then, ride it.”

H returned the tablet to its place in the desk under the laptop, and began. “Fact: pieces of the missing ‘plane, verified to be from that ‘plane, have been found on the shores of islands and countries in the Indian Ocean, along the last estimated flight path of that ‘plane.”

M crossed himself and whispered, “Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine.

H bowed his head as well and said, “Et lux perpetua luceat eis.” There was a brief pause.

Then H resumed. “Fact: with the precautions in place after September 11, 1991, it is unlikely that outside highjackers could have gotten into the locked cabin and overcome the pilot and copilot. Conjecture: the cause of the disappearance of the jetliner can be traced to actions either of the pilot or the co-pilot.

M made a noise at the back of his throat and nodded at this. “That makes perfect sense, H. There was the earlier Air France flight from Rio to Paris, where the senior pilot stepped out, and the co-pilot made some ghastly mistakes that cost the plane, the crew, and the passengers their lives. And there was the later German flight where a depressed co-pilot locked the pilot out, and drove the plane into the side of the Alps, killing all aboard. Precedent thus suggests that either by accident or intent, either the co-pilot or the pilot crashed the plane.

H looked at his friend with renewed respect. “I see that you’ve been following this matter carefully yourself.”

M shrugged. “No more than the next man, H. I simply read the papers, and remember what I read. The rest is simply a matter of ‘connecting the dots’, as the current phrase is. And I believe I’ve demonstrated, in the course of our long friendship, that I can do that quite as well as you can. You simply had to direct my attention to the matter.

H nodded and said, “Just so. Well, the magazine article under discussion gave me several more facts that I had not learned until recently, that might interest you.”

M. spread his hand open, palm upward, toward H and said, “Please give them me.”

“Very well: it seems that when the Malaysian authorities investigated the pilot’s belongings, including his personal computer, they found that it contained a copy of a popular program called ‘Flight Simulator’, which name should explain itself. The pilot had logged hundreds of hours on that program, and one of his last ‘flights’ appears to have matched the last known co-ordinates of the missing airliner.”

“Thus leading a reasonable person to the conclusion that it was the pilot who did it, and that he did it with intent.” M remembered his cigar, dipped its end again into the shot glass of brandy, and took a meditative puff on it. “But why?”

“I would suggest,” said H, “that we first establish the ‘what’, or the facts, before we attempt to determine the ‘why’. And for that, I think we need to examine the flight path which he took. Or at least, what we are able to reconstruct of it.”

“Very well then, H.” M took another puff of his cigar. “I’m waiting.”

“Perhaps it would be helpful if we used my ‘orbus mundi’ for that,” said H., gesturing at the three foot diameter world globe at one corner of the study. H and M rose from their chairs, and walked the two or so steps to the globe. “I see you’ve already positioned your little toy to show us the clear path between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing,” M observed idly.

H smiled. “Prior Preparation, in addition to Preventing Piss Poor Performance, also saves much in the way of time.” H pointed to the dot which marked the Malaysian city, and then traced with his finger the geodetic line to the Chinese one. “The ‘plane departed Kuala Lumpur near midnight Malaysian time, and proceeded northeast up toward Vietnam.” H traced the path of the ‘plane with a forefinger on the surface of the globe.

“But then,” H continued, “rather than proceeding on to Beijing, at thirty-nine minutes into the flight, the ‘plane abruptly changed course, as it was about to enter Vietnamese territory and radar acquisition. It instead doubled back toward the Malaysian island of Penang. The ‘plane also dropped in altitude, out of the range of both Malaysian and Vietnamese domestic radar. It was only because of a combination of Malaysian military radar, and satellite communication with various functions of the ‘plane, that the authorities were later able to reconstruct its final flight path.”

“And what was that final path, H?” M appeared genuinely interested.

“About forty minutes after it had changed course and doubled back to Penang, the ‘plane made a broad turn to pass over the island, and to then proceed northwest in a path which would take it to the Indian Ocean.” H traced his finger over the globe to show the path, then continued. “Seven hours after taking off, the ‘plane’s automatic equipment made a final satellite communication. That also tallies with the estimates as to the ‘plane’s fuel capacity and consumption. It also tallies with the information from the pilot’s Flight Simulator. It seems that he was doing estimates as to how far such a ‘plane as his could travel along such a path before it finally crashed in the ocean.”

“Good God!”, exclaimed M. “The facts you have related so far clearly indicate that the pilot intended all of these actions. I know enough about the workings of autopilots to know that it would have been quite beyond their capacity to have negotiated either of those turns, let alone both together. And what other facts do you have to share with me?”

“Only three more facts,”replied H. The first is that the pilot was born and raised on Penang Island. And the second is that just a few days before that final flight, the wife of the pilot removed both herself and his and her three children from the house they lived in, because of an apparent infidelity on his part.”

“Those two facts, given in that order, would suggest that the pilot was despondent over the loss of his wife and children, had elected to commit suicide by jetliner, and had decided to take a view of his childhood home before going on to a watery grave. But you mentioned three facts, H, and I know you of old as one who likes paradoxical surprises. You have attempted, on any number of occasions, to lead me down the garden path, only later to pull an ‘inconvenient truth’ like a rabbit out of your deerstalker hat. I’m not falling for it this time.”

“Just so,” admitted H. The theory you have expressed has a certain merit to it, and is a far better one than most of the lot currently wearing tinfoil hats have managed to come up with. Would you care to examine the pros and cons for that theory.”

M took a sip of his brandy, a puff from his cigar, and closed his eyes for several seconds. On opening them again, he said, “The merits are pretty much as I have already stated. The demerits are that such a set of actions is entirely out of character with the pilots whom I have met, and with whom I have worked. They tend to be direct and unsentimental men of action. They also tend to be alpha males, who generally are a randy lot, and also tend not to be too attached to wives or other baggage.”

M continued, “Thus, to tell me that an airline pilot was so despondent over the loss of his wife that he circled back to take a view of his family home before going on to do away with himself is ‘a bridge too far’ for me to consider as something other than arrant nonsense. Besides, even if he were to decide to take his own life, though, he wouldn’t dilly-dally about it: he would have disabled the co-pilot, or locked him out of the cabin, and then crashed the ‘plane soon after takeoff.”

“Correct,” said H. “As happened in the unfortunate case of the German airliner which had been mentioned earlier. Very well done, M. Now, as the TV game show host would say, ‘for extra Jeopardy points’, what would explain the pilot’s odd behavior?”

M paused for a second, and then said, “For one thing, it would appear that the pilot was applying an elaborate policy of concealment in all his actions. By dropping out of radar range and then suddenly changing direction, he was concealing the ‘plane’s whereabouts, location, and direction. Second, he did this, not once, but twice, in the change of direction of the ‘plane over Penang. Third, by arranging for the ‘plane to run out of fuel at about the time that it was due in Beijing, he postponed the time that the air traffic controllers there would start looking for, and worrying about, the missing ‘plane, until it was far too late to track or find it. Finally, there is some significance in the fact that the ‘plane made its final turn over the pilot’s home town, but just what significance it might have, or why he was concealing his movements, is beyond my powers.”

“Then I think that it is time, M, to present you with the final clue. The overwhelming majority of the ‘plane’s passengers were citizens of the Peoples’ Republic of China, bound homeward from vacations or business from Kuala Lumpur, and headed back to Beijing.”

At this, M began to open his mouth, only to shut it again tightly. His eyes shut as well, and a tic began in the outer corner of his right eye. The tic continued, once per second, until a bit more than a minute had passed. Then M opened his eyes again.

“That explains everything. In the course of my distant past, I had the dubious opportunity of meeting a number of high PRC party officials, some time after the Cultural Revolution. Rather than being devoted to the ideals of the party, they were, to a man, in it for themselves. A fair number of them also had access to the considerable assets of the government. It is therefore not surprising that in the last few decades, some of them were caught using the casinos of such places as Hong Kong, Singapore, Macao, and Seoul to convert millions of yuan into dollars, pounds, swiss francs, or such commodities as gold, and to hide them away in numbered accounts in foreign banks. As a result, some of the smarter party officials would go instead to less traveled casinos. Such as the ones in Kuala Lumpur.”

H beamed with pleasure, and said, “Got it in one, old man. You’ve established a motive. Would you care to try for means as well?”

M made another rough sound at the back of his throat, and said, “Now that you’ve set the facts before me, coming to plausible conclusions is child’s play. The ‘plane would take off, as usual, with the trainee co-pilot driving the ‘plane, while the pilot oversaw things. It would be a simple matter, with a cosh or a gun, for the pilot to have dispatched the trainee during take off, while he was putting his full attention on driving the ‘plane. At that point, the pilot could take over flying the plane, but not before depressurizing the passengers’ cabin. That could be accomplished either from the ‘plane’s control panel, or else by the simple expedient of firing a pistol round through the hull or a window of the ‘plane. As a matter of fact, by using a gun, the pilot could have effectively killed any number of birds with a single stone.”

H winced, and said, “My congratulations. You have managed to turn a shopworn cliché into a rather gruesomely effective metaphor. Do continue, though.”

M did so. “At standard altitude for a jetliner, around seven or so miles above ground, passengers and crew in an unpressurized cabin would become unconscious within fifteen seconds, and be dead within six minutes. Those few who managed to get their oxygen masks on would have bought about ten minutes worth of time, as the capacity of those masks is quite limited. The masks were only meant to buy the passengers enough time so that the pilot could decrease altitude to three miles or less above ground, where the air would be breathable. They would be of no use whatsoever, if the pilot were to maintain altitude.”

“In fact,” H interrupted, “I am given to understand from another source that Malaysian radar indicated that at one point in that dreadful night, a plane matching that heading rose as high as 45,000 feet.”

M nodded and said, “Thank you, H. That fact would be a further confirmation of my theory. It would depend, of course, on just when that change in altitude occurred. But in short, H’, whether at 37,000 or 45,000 feet, perhaps twenty minutes after the ‘plane depressurized, every man, woman, and child in the ‘plane, except for the pilot, would be dead.”

“As it happened in the case of the Greek jetliner to Cyprus, but that happened by accident. And why would it be necessary for all of them to be dead?” asked H, almost innocently.

“’The better to rob them by, said the Big Bad Wolf’,” intoned M. “If the pilot had done his homework, he could use the passenger list, the associated list of hotels and lodgings of the passengers, and his own wits, to determine likely victims, and while the ‘plane was on autopilot, to go through the victims’ clothing, wallets, purses, and onboard luggage to his heart’s content. If he had only three or four victims, that could be done in the forty minutes that it would have taken, at standard speed, to get to Penang. And if there were more victims, he could always buy more time by setting the autopilot to a lower speed.”

“At this point,” said H, “I’ll play devil’s advocate, and throw up an objection or two. It’s unlikely that he could have jumped off the ‘plane without hitting its hull, and it would have been impossible to jump off the ‘plane at standard cruising speed. D.B. Cooper tried, and most likely died in the attempt.”

“To take the second objection first, when the pilot had made the second turn to Penang, he could have slowed the plane to just above stall speed, which for a ‘plane of that type is between 125 and 150 knots. Additionally, he could have positioned the ‘plane for twelve to fifteen thousand feet above ground, which is the standard altitude for a parachutist’s jump. And, as to the first objection, 150 knots happens to be the maximum speed at which a parachutist can safely deplane during a jump. Of course, to be perfectly safe, he could throw a weighted line that was tethered to the inside of the plane, and use a hook to slide down and past the rear hull or the tail of the ‘plane.

“But,” continued M, “This explains the bend in the route over Penang. The pilot grew up there. He would have known the roads, the flight landmarks, and more to the point, the open fields near those roads. I would not at all be surprised if the pilot became proficient at parachuting, and did several jumps in Penang, just to prepare for the event.”

“So,” said H, “In addition to having established motive, you’ve established the means of the pilot’s actions, to boot. Would you care to try for opportunity as well?”

M paused, and said, “I suspect that all of the pieces in this horrid game were rolling around in his head, and for a long time. Although gambling is illegal for the citizens of Malaysia, because of his high status as an airline pilot, he could have gotten away with frequenting the casinos, if he himself did not gamble. From that vantage point, and with contacts in the airline and hotels, he would have had years, if not decades, to take the measure of his victims, and content himself with thinking, ‘I COULD do this, if I wanted to’.

“And all the while, he could gain the skills which would enable him to do just that. Parachuting as a sport. The constant use of the Flight Simulator. Calculations of how much fuel would get the ‘plane just how far. And perhaps examining the maritime maps of the Indian Ocean, to determine where the deepest part of that ocean might be.”

H nodded agreement, and said, “Actually, what you are saying fits quite nicely with everything I’ve been able to find out about the pilot, courtesy of Messrs. Google and Yahoo. He was both methodical in every thing he did, and quite well off, with two houses, and a rather hefty bank account; at least, the one that he left to his wife. I have no doubt that there were other accounts as well.

“But”, continued H, “all accounts indicated that he was something of a ladies’ man, that he was of an age to have a ‘midlife crisis’, and that his marriage, if not on the rocks, was approaching the shoals. While the report of the Malaysian government said there no signs of untoward activity by the crew, the rumors remain that the pilot’s wife had just separated from him, and was intending to file for divorce, a few days before the plane’s disappearance.”

“For my part,” said M, “I suspect that that event, rather than being a trigger to his suicide, was the factor which led him to his decision to set the whole scenario we have described into motion. It was, more or less, his ‘last straw’.

“But it accomplished rather more than breaking a poor camel’s back,” said H. “It caused the horrible deaths of more than two hundred innocent people. And even his ‘victims’, those people who had embezzled PRC funds, were not guilty of anything worthy of a death penalty.”

“I’m afraid that the PRC would disagree with you on that one, H.”

“Probably, M. But I’m wondering whether it would at all have been worth it to the pilot.”

“I think that, for such a one as the pilot, it would have been. At worst, he could have collected several hundred thousand dollars, or the equivalent, of cash and other valuables on the two hundred corpses in the ‘plane. At best, his ‘victims’ would probably have their numbered bank accounts on their persons, which he could then ‘liberate’ for his own use, to use a common and ugly verb in currency today. And regardless, he would probably have long ago banked his own resources, under a different identity, and could have gone on to live, with a new life, and a new identity. Yes, I think it would have been worth it to the pilot.”

There was a brief pause, while the two friends sipped their brandy, and took sustaining puffs on their cigars. Then H said:

“Now that I have laid all this before you, M, the question occurs to me: what should be done about it?”

“And I have an answer for you, H: nothing should be done about this, at least by either of us.”

Why so?

“Well, H, for one thing, you have retired from your investigative pursuits. For another, I am also retired from my own pursuits in my particular metier, Further, I have long ago found it to be the wisest counsel to mind my own business, and to limit my concern to matters and people who interfere with that business. Since the pilot has done me no harm, I intend to leave him alone. I would suggest that you do likewise.”

“M, I’m tempted to disregard your advice.”

“H, if you will recall, you did so in the past, with me in particular, and the results were not as pleasant for either of us as they could have been.”

“True, M.”

“But besides all that, H, it occurs to me that there is yet another reason why it is quite unnecessary for either of us to take up the chase against this rogue pilot.”

“And that is, M?”

“I suspect that the chase has already begun.”

“And what leads you to this conclusion, M?”

“Quite simply, the fact that the PRC have long been involved in the present matter, what with the facts that two hundred of their citizens have been brutally murdered, and more to the point, it is likely that millions of their yuan have been stolen by the pilot.”

“But what makes you think that they have come to the same conclusions as we have, M?”

“Because, while I have a healthy regard for the acuity of my intellect, and yours as well, I am under no illusions that either of us are unique in that particular regard. And while I have some considerable doubts as to the acuity of the present British or American governmental leaders, I have none as regards either the leaders, or the technocrats, of the PRC. I would estimate that their average intellect, particularly of their technocrats, rivals that of our own.”

“Since you have had more dealings with them than I, M, I shall have to take you at your word.”

“Please do, H. And more to the point, they have something which both of us lack: a personal involvement, or ‘skin in the game’, since their own people were killed, and their own money was taken.”

“Then I suppose that the only thing we can do is to toast the success of the fox, or the hounds, M.”

“If you don’t mind, I would prefer to toast the fox over the hounds, H.”

“Please feel free to do so, M. But I think it only proper to do so over a fresh drink. May I suggest a tot of my aged rum?”

“The one that you fermented, distilled, and aged yourself, H?”

“Quite so, M.”

“I wouldn’t mind that at all, H. To be quite honest, I was hoping for another taste of it. And perhaps, after you have rung up Uber or Lyft, and arranged my ride home, you can tell me the story of how you came to confect your excellent rum.”

“I would be delighted, M.” The two men rose from their chairs.


My comments on the abuse crisis of the RC Church

There has been a lot of talk about sexual abuse of the young among Roman Catholic (or RC) clergy. While I am a Russian Catholic, I am still in union with the RC Church, and so this affects me as well. I therefore have both a right and a duty, under both canon and American civil law, to talk about it.

Briefly, the nature of the crisis is this: the rate of sexual abuse, according to the Jay Report and other confirming studies, is 5% of the total number of RC clergy in Europe and North America. 80% of that is male-on-male, and the overwhelming majority of that abuse is of post-pubescent boys. By way of contrast, the rate of child abuse by adult males in the U.S. population is 1/20th of one percent, and 80% of that abuse is male-on-female, with only 20% involving male-on-male abuse.

In short, there are strong indicia that the cohort of child abusers among RC clergy are a part of a much larger cohort of actively gay males in the clergy. These indicia are borne out by the studies done over the last thirty years by the late A.W.S. Sipe, which indicate that as many as 50% of that clergy are both gay and non-celibate, in violation of their vows of chastity.

Regardless of the actual number or percentage of RC clergy who are actively gay, it appears obvious, from the Jay Report and the several state grand jury reports, that there has been a pattern and practice of RC gay or gay-sympathizing hierarchs to protect the abusers and the unchaste, at the expense of the lay faithful. Those faithful are now beginning to vote, either with their pocketbooks, in denying the clergy their tithes, or with their feet, by leaving the Church.

These actions by the lay faithful, while perhaps necessary, are by no means sufficient to correct the situation. In addition, they weaken the Church on earth, by further dividing people. A better solution would be to identify those clergy who are in violation of their vows, and to give them the choice of reform or retirement. Both the civil authorities, and rich Catholic laity, are in the process of conducting their own investigations.

But while a house cleaning of the Church is necessary, it is by no means sufficient. Our Lord has told us that if there is a house that was once possessed and has been cleaned, but remains empty, that many more demons will return to it, and the state of that house will be worse than it was to begin with. This is not only true of the house of our souls, but of the House of God as well.

The more fundamental cause of this crisis is a failure of faith. No one who actually believed the Gospels could possibly act as these clergy have. But ultimately, as we know that faith comes from hearing the word of God, that the ultimate failure was the failure to teach, or to hear, the word of God. And I must note that this failure to teach and to learn the faith was and is not limited to the clergy. Each and every one of us, as lay faithful, have failed in our duty to learn the faith, and to teach it to others.

Additionally, I think it is fair to say that what we are experiencing is the demonic possession of the Church itself. Hirelings who have shown themselves to be both sons of Eli and sons of Belial have entered the sheepfold, and have become our alleged shepherds. It is necessary that these false shepherds be cast out. But it is also necessary to find shepherds who will feed their sheep, instead of fleecing, starving, and abusing them.

But this is truly a dumb spirit, both in the sense of being silent, and also in the sense of being stupid. And we have been taught by our Lord that this type of spirit can only be cast out by prayer and fasting. So it must be for us, and for our Church, if we wish to cast out these demons which infest and infect Her.

So, let’s start with prayer. Our Lord has taught us, in Matthew 6, several things about how we are to pray: First, do it alone, and don’t talk about it to others. Second, KISS, or ‘keep it simple, sweetheart’. God already knows what you need. Third, it has long been a tradition that we pray for others, as well ourselves. Fourth, it has also been a tradition to set aside regular times for private prayer, and to use a set rule. Some use the Rosary. Others use the Office. Yet others use the Trisagion prayers. Of course, it has long been a tradition that we also pray together, either during the Divine Liturgy, or the hours. It’s worth considering, anyway.

Let’s move on to fasting. Again, in Matthew 6, Our Lord taught us not to make a show about it. Do it cheerfully. It has also been an apostolic tradition, first found in the Didache, that we fast on Wednesdays and Fridays, to commemorate our Lord’s betrayal and crucifixion. It has also been a tradition that when we fast, we both cut down on the amount of food, and the types of food. Think vegan, and you’ve got the general idea. Don’t think so much as ‘giving up’ something, as putting it aside. And consider that in addition to fasting from food, you can also fast from certain actions and passions.

And, as long as we’ve been talking about Matthew 6, why don’t we move on to the part where our Lord talks about almsgiving. Other than our Lord’s usual thing about keeping quiet about it, you might want to consider the apostolic tradition of not just throwing money at the problem, but also, that set of acts and practices that have come down to us as the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Try looking them up, and maybe even practicing them.

Finally, there has been an additional practice, which, while it is neither Dominical nor Apostolic, has long been a tradition of our Church: study. Study the Word of God, which, for Catholics, has been the following three things: Sacred Scripture, Holy Tradition, and the Magisterium of the Church. Start reading the New Testament, and the Old. When you read the Old Testament, follow the ancient custom of our Church, and read not only the Hebrew Canon, but the Greek Canon (which includes the so-called Apocrypha) as well. Holy Tradition can be found in the writings of the Church Fathers, and in the Lives of the Saints. And the Magisterium, for Roman Catholics, consists of the Seven Ecumenical Councils, the later Papal Councils (up to and including Vatican II), and the teachings of the Popes, which can be found in their writings.

And finally, if you are ambitious, why not try replicating in your studies the recommendations of the Second Vatican Council, in Optatam Totius, where they recommend the study of Latin, and the study of the languages of Scripture and Tradition, or Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Why not gain the humanistic, scientific, and philosophical patrimony of the Church, which makes an understanding of the Word of God possible? And why not use that combined knowledge to better inform and direct further studies in theology?

I dare say, that if the clergy had been faithful to the teachings of Optatam Totius to begin with, and reformed the education of priests accordingly, we wouldn’t be in the present mess. But, as the wag once said, the first step in getting one’s self out of a hole, is to stop digging. And then, just maybe, to look up instead of down. I think it’s worth a try.

The Humanities are Dead! Long live the Liberal Arts!

Now that I have your attention, I would like to give a funeral oration for the late, great humanities, and for the great universities, which are dying even as we speak. Perhaps an oration and a eulogy for both of them would be appropriate, for both the humanities and the universities, as the latter are the tomb and funeral pyre within which the former have suffocated, perished, and been burned alive.

Truly, the humanities, and the great universities from which they sprung, five or so centuries ago, were wonders to behold. They had taken the philosophical, literary, historical, and scientific knowledge of their time, and had so compounded them, one with another, so that their masters and exponents were replete with the knowledge and erudition of their age. Borne out of the European Renaissance, their scientists, scholars, and poets were the marvel of their age. From Pico della Mirandola and Leonardo da Vinci all the way down to Isaac Newton and John Milton, they were equally conversant in the laboratories and literary salons of their day.

Over the many decades after them, however, changes slowly came to the humanities and the universities that housed them. Because of the advancement in knowledge of the scientists, and the multiplication of the scholiasts who made comment on the literature of the age, little by little the universities began the process of specialization into schools of literature, history, philosophy, and the sciences. This process was accelerated in the 18th and 19th centuries by the Germans, who encouraged their scholars and scientists to focus on narrow specializations, although, in all fairness to the Krauts, they still made their young scholars go through the gymnasien, which gave all of those students a general erudition, and a common fund of knowledge. And the English and the French of those days did much the same thing with their public schools and their êcoles, though they encouraged their university scholars toward a broader erudition than that of the Germans.

But it was in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries that the real mischief happened. It began with the realization that the sciences of engineering, chemistry, and physics could make weapons which would greatly increase the military and political power of the nation-states which held them. And, with the increased prestige of the physical sciences, American universities, and more to their point, their faculties, began to add the protective coloration of the name of ‘science’ to their new fields of political theory, sociology, psychology, economics, and anthropology, among many others (although, sad to tell, of their great number, only physical anthropology had the rigor of the physical sciences).

The consequences of all of the above were obvious to anyone who was actually paying attention. Alas, though, few were. C.P. Snow saw a part of this, when he wrote his The Two Cultures, where he saw a growing division between the scientific and engineering community, and that community which was still held together by a common literary, historical, and philosophical tradition. But in an age when the university money went to the scientists, and what was left over (other than that which went for sports, of course) was divided among the babel of ‘the subjects’, that tradition, and the erudition which went with them, soon disappeared.

In the mean time, among most American public and private schools, misguided and, quite frankly, bone headed theories of education led to the progressive abandonment of phonics, spelling, grammar, logic, rhetoric, or even the broad and deep reading that simply being left alone by the schools might have led to. This, combined with the progressively easier and easier entertainment of radio, television, computers, computer games, the internet, and social media, led to the progressive abandonment of any rigor in primary and secondary education.

The results of this whole scale abandonment of education in the humanities for the past fifty years have been that the ‘Two Cultures’ of the late C.P. Snow are now the Eloi and the Morlocks predicted in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. We now have the spectacle of liberal arts majors in the universities who could not name the seven Liberal Arts if a gun were put to their head, let alone give any indication that they had read much of anything. And, with the exception of some offspring of Jewish or Hindu or Asian families, who still have a tradition of education in the family, we have very few who know anything of mathematics or science, save perhaps to recount the latest episode of The Big Bang Theory.

In the meantime, the costs of college or university have so increased that it is impossible for a student to graduate, unless either his or her family is rich, or he or she is willing to sustain an enormous student debt, which can not be discharged in bankruptcy, or otherwise voided.

In short, I have seen the writing upon the wall, and it is the ledger sheet of a bankrupt institution.

More and more, what we shall see is that universities will abandon their ‘humanities’ departments, and more and more, they shall become trade schools and vocational schools which, at best, will teach the science and engineering which our corporate masters require for their employees, and at worst, will teach the law, economics, business, and finance which our corporate masters will require to maintain their exalted positions over the rest of us.


Food porn: Irish Coffee

Irish Coffee

Well, it’s about time to start writing again in my wretched little weblog. My apologies to the now-three or four regular readers. I’m still not ready to talk about my late mother.

So, I will again change the subject.

Today is the feast of St. Patrick, a feast which apparently is recognized in both the Latin West and the Greek East. It would seem that everyone likes the Irish. Except, perhaps, other Irish.

I’m told that in Ireland, these days, it is a minor feast. And if its date does not fall on a Sunday, few, other than the devout, will go to Mass on that day, or otherwise celebrate the feast.

But, I am told, it is another thing altogether in the ‘States. Millions of Irish-Americans, and millions more of would-be Irish-Americans, celebrate St. Patrick’s feast in all sorts of ungodly customs, most of them invented in the Twentieth Century, and the rest in the Twenty First.

At least those founded in the Twentieth have the advantage of being tasty. Things like corned beef and cabbage (which I am given to understand that American Irish used to buy from Jewish delis), and Irish Coffee (which I first thought was Irish, later thought was a ‘San Francisco treat’, and which lately I have discovered got its start in Ireland around 1943, and then rolled downhill from there all the way to San Francisco).

Finally, I’m given to understand that Twenty-First Century traditions for St. Patrick’s Day include green beer and the Irish Car Bomb. But, the less said about either of those abominations, the better.

The two traditions that my family cultivated for the Feast of St. Patrick were corned beef and cabbage, and Irish coffee. As my mother in her last years developed an intolerance for nitrates and nitrates (among many other dietary restrictions), we got around those by corning our own beef. In fact, one of my fondest memories was just a couple of years ago, when I, my brother Bill, my nephew John, and my mother had a proper corned beef and cabbage dinner, with small Yukon potatoes, and garnished with a nice Dijon mustard. It was, perhaps, non-canonical. It remained, however, quite delicious.

But we’re talking about Irish Coffee, here, so the recipe for gourmet corned beef and cabbage will just have to wait for another year or so.

So, guyz, the classic Irish Coffee is, according to the IBA, confected of the following:

–2 parts Irish Whisky (2 centiliters, or cl)

–4 parts hot Coffee (4 cl)

–1/2 part Brown Sugar (1/2 cl, or 1 teaspoon)

–1 1/2 parts Cream (1 & 1/2 cl)

And the manner in which this estimable comestible is confected is this: mix whisky, coffee, and sugar in a cup. Float cream on top of mixture. Enjoy.

Of course, both the Devil, and one’s delight, are in the details. So, let’s just examine each of the details.

–Irish Whisky. It should go without saying that if one wants a proper Irish Coffee, then some variety of Irish is the whisky to get. Among the literary set, Jameson’s, the favorite tipple of James Joyce, is the canonical choice. Somehow, though, I doubt that dear old Jimmy would sully his with anything other than perhaps a splash of rain or creek water. If you are not a nationalist partisan of The War of Independence, or The (later) Troubles, then I suppose Bushmills would do, though you might just start a row in any genuinely Irish pub if you were so rash as to order one there. I’m told that Trader Joe’s has a good single malt Irish Whisky. Or, if you want to go all hipster, you could try one of these.

–Coffee. Hot, strong, and black is the operative ingredient here. For those with a working espresso machine, then a cafe americano would do. If you have a french press, then a good coarsely ground french roast coffee would also do. And, if you are the kind that likes to build things from the ground up, then I have written something here which might be of some use to you.

–Sugar. If you are an impurist, then I suppose that simple white granulated sugar would do. If you are a purist, then brown sugar would be the way to go. But if you are at all adventurous, then you might want to grate a teaspoon of piloncillo, or even pour a teaspoon of Jamaican molasses, as a variant. Tell me how it goes, if you do.

-Cream. Here’s where most of the arguments happen. Back in Ireland in the ’40s, they floated simple thick cream from Ireland (as opposed to Irish Cream, which is a whole ‘nother animal) on top of the coffee drink. And for some, unwhipped heavy cream is the only acceptable choice. If you take that route, then you will need the recommended sugar in the coffee part of the drink, as that will alter the specific gravity of the coffee to the point where it will be easier for the cream to remain floating on the surface of the coffee. Hey, it’s science, and the science is settled. You wouldn’t want to be a science denier, now, wouldja?

For many, though, they alter the specific gravity of the cream, by adding some sugar, or vanilla extract, and by using a whisk or an electric whipper, to add a bit of air to the cream, and thereby making it lighter. Some even more daring souls will run the cream through a whipping cream foamer. The lazy (which I was this morning) will use a can of whipped cream. Now, if you decide to make that choice, Alta Dena at least has a variety with real cream.

Just don’t tell me if you decide to use a spray can or tub of Kool-Whip or another such abomination. I really don’t want to know about that shizzit.

On the other hand, there are some who can not consume cream, whipped or otherwise, because of health or dietary reasons. And some of my friends are keeping what the Irish used to call a black fast: a diet without meat, fish, milk, or eggs. While I have had some hard things to say about most vegans, I can sympathize with those who have had to adopt a vegan diet, either through medical necessity, or because of obedience to their religion.

In which case, I would suggest substituting the cream with something which is at least organic, rather than a chemical feast (yecchh!) One might therefore consider something like this.

And, for those who, in celebrating St. Patrick’s day, actually remember the Reason for the Season, I would recommend this:




Stating the Obvious

My mother died last Sunday. On Christmas Eve. While I was at church.

I suppose I shall have to talk more of this. When I’m ready to do so. Not now.

I’d rather just change the subject, thank you.

And so, for the benefit of my three or four readers, I will instead expatiate on a subject near and dear to my heart: the Divine Liturgy.

I suppose I’ve been pondering on this for the last two score years, when, after being raised indifferently by my parents and my church in the faith, I became a nasty little atheist at the age of thirteen, and a not-so-virtuous pagan thereafter until I was twenty-four, when I accepted my Lord Christ in my heart, and sought for His Church in the world.

The day that I returned was what the West calls Maundy Thursday, and what the East calls Great and Holy Thursday. The couple that led me the rest of the way back to the faith invited me to their evening service, which commemorated the Last or Mystical Supper, when my Lord Christ founded the first service of the Divine Liturgy.

I suppose that that has affected me ever since. Both in my search for Christ’s Church, and in pondering over the true worship of that Church.

That search led me to return to the Roman Catholic church, which was the church of my youth. This was prompted because, after much study, I came to the conclusion that both that church and the Orthodox church comprised the center of the Church founded by my Lord Christ. And I decided that it was best to return to that part of Christ’s church in which I had been born and baptized.

Alas, between the time that I had renounced and apostatized from that church, some things had happened. The Second Vatican Council was one of them.

And, in point of fact, that Council was influential in occasioning my return to Roman Catholicism. In the course of my studies, I had read all the documents of that Council. And I was drawn to everything that was said in them. That the Church should engage with the world, in order to draw all toward Christ. That the Church should recognize that which is true in all religions, and to use that commonality in conversing with those religions. That there should be a reform in the education of the clergy, so that they might engage more effectively with the scientific, literary, and philosophical leadership of the world, and have better knowledge of those three fonts of the Holy Spirit: Scripture, Tradition, and Church Authority. And most important, that the Divine Liturgy should be reformed, so that it might more truly be ‘the summit of human existence’ and ‘a foretaste of the Kingdom of Heaven’.

So, I returned to the Roman Catholic Church. Stayed there for as long as I could, too.

But it seemed to me that few, if any, of its people or clergy had actually ‘gotten the memo’ that Vatican II offered. I felt the same way toward that Council that Mohandas Gandhi felt toward Western Civilization: both would be a good idea.

So, after seven years of experiencing the most painful and tedious liturgies to which humankind could be expected to endure (this was in the Archdiocese of LaLa Land, during the reign of His Eminence, Roger Cardinal Mahony), I happened to find a cassette tape of Russian Monastic Vespers, sung by the monks of Chevetogne. I was so taken by the beauty of that music that I taught myself German, just to read the liner notes, so that I could understand what was being prayed for and in that service.

And I found the most beautiful prayer and worship that I had ever experienced in my life.  I prayed to God for a solid month that I might be led to a church that prayed like that.

And I was led, a bit more than thirty years ago, to St. Andrew Russian Catholic Church, on the very week that my pastor and spiritual father, Fr. Alexei Smith, was ordained to serve the Divine Liturgy there.

I’ve been there ever since.  I’ve learned a few things since then.

One thing I’ve learned is that the culture wars mean very little in the long run. Yes, you can hold grievances about the stupid liturgy tricks that you have yourself experienced, or read about in The Wanderer or The Remnant, or that lot, or that you have heard about on ‘teh webz’ or have watched on YouTube.

But it does nothing to help to heal your soul of its ills. In fact, it does rather the opposite.

Another thing I’ve learned is that it does little good to continue religious feuds that have been going on for a long time. Like whether Latin is or is not a good thing to use in a mass. Or whether it is better to put thumb, forefinger, and middle finger together when making the Sign of the Cross. Or the direction in which you cross yourself. Or, finally, with whether you say or do not say that tricksy little ‘filioque’ in the Creed.

It matters a whole lot more whether you love God, and whether you love the lot who live right next to you, who are made in the image and likeness of that God. It matters if that love is expressed in loving God with your whole being, including your mind and your pocketbook, and whether that love is also expressed in helping and loving those around you. Even if they are not particularly lovable.

And, quite frankly, it also involves seeking God, by studying His two creations: the Universe, and His Scriptures. It involves trying to find His beauty and His wisdom, and expressing it in one’s lives, and in one’s worship.

If you try to do otherwise, you are likely to wind up with a golden calf, or with the sacrifice of Cain, who offered only what he wanted to offer, rather than what God had asked for. In both cases, the results would appear to be unsatisfactory.

For my part, I worship at a church where we believe that when the priest chants, “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”, and when we respond by saying, “Amen,” that Kingdom, for that short but vital time, is actually made manifest then and there.

And I have seen, heard, and felt myriad proofs of that Kingdom, in the thirty years I have worshiped at St. Andrews. Many others have told me the same thing.

It expresses itself to those others usually in this way: at the end of the Divine Liturgy, I and the three other members of our little choir descend the stair from the choir loft and receive our blessing from the priest or priests down there. Newcomers to our church will frequently exclaim: “But there are so few of you here! It sounded like there were many more of you upstairs!”

Those of us who have been there for much longer, particularly those who are or who have been in the choir, will just smile quietly and say, “Yes, you’re right. It does sound like there are more upstairs.”

But it is different upstairs. In part, it sounds like more are there because those of us in the choir get to hear all of the people downstairs singing along with us. You see, we have the rather odd idea at St. Andrews’ that the choir are the leaders of the people in prayer. Not their replacement. And the choir downstairs, for the most part, are really good at what they do.

In part, too, it is in the nature of what we are doing when our small choir sings. The four of us have each been singing for a long time, and have long been studying or living in the faith of our church. Our director is an alumnus of the New England Conservatory of Music, where his majors were piano and composition, and has had decades of experience in choral direction. Our only instrument is a tuning fork in middle C. And the nature of the Orthodox Divine Liturgy is that it is a solid hour and a half to two hours of singing forty or more connected pieces of music, and not, as in the West, an Ordinary of five settings, (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei) and Propers of five or six more.

I am told that those who have studied humans when they sing chorally have found that more of their brains are involved when they sing than at any other time. I have found that to be my experience as well. I have never felt so alive in my life, and seldom more fulfilled, than when I sing in the choir, attentive to the words and the music (which I have long since memorized), to my other choir members, to the director, to the voice of the priest (and occasionally, of the deacon, when one is present), and most importantly, to the meaning of the prayers which we sing.

But there is something more going on here. And I blush to mention it. But there are times, when I am most attentive to the words and music and meaning, when I begin to hear and to feel the presence of the others:  those members of the choir who have fallen asleep in the Lord, who are no longer present in body, but who nonetheless sing with us. Frank Ryan, my first choir director there. My first wife, Carolyn. Her brother, Charlie. John Roshay. Roger Lund. Michael Cervanek. My second wife, Beth. And the many angels who sing with them as well. I think it is these, more than anyone else, that people are hearing when they think the choir to be so large.

And, on Christmas Day, I felt behind me, several times, the presence of someone who loved me, and who was very proud of me. I hope it may have been my mother.

And that hope is the only thing right now that is keeping me from despair.

Musings on Thanksgiving

Well, here I am of a Thanksgiving weekend, ensconced once again in my little hermit’s duplex in Pedro town, slowly drinking a breakfast Cafe Napoleon, courtesy of the corner mini-mart that has provided the filtered water and the two little bottles of E & J brandy.  The rest of the ingredients are at hand at my little domicile. My efforts at following the St. Philips’ Fast (starting Nov. 15th) have been shot straight to Hell by the previous week’s festivities, so I think that I shall just wait until the Feast of St. Andrew (starting November 30th), which is also my church’s patronal feast day, to get down to the nitty-gritty of the Nativity Fast. So it goes.

Still and all, it was an altogether wonderful time, this past week or so. Allow me to share with my three or four readers all of the details. Read the rest of this entry »

Sooper Genius!

sooper genius

I have a terrible confession to make: I have a high intelligence quotient. Worse than that, it is not just Mensa level. It is, quite frankly, Albert Einstein or Stephen Hawking level. My mother tells me that I started speaking when I was three months old. She also tells me that, after she had been reading to me for about a year, starting almost from birth, I started speaking the words of the book myself along with her. By the time I was two, I was quite happily reading by myself.

It gets worse. My parents told me, later, that when I was six, and they had gone to my parent-teacher conference, the teacher told them that I was at that time reading at an eighth grade level. She told them this because she wanted their help in getting me to stop reading. She felt that I was embarrassing the other kids. And she thought that eventually, I would get to be ‘normal’, anyway.

I don’t know about the other kids, but she was definitely wrong about my becoming ‘normal’. It seemed that I always remained about eight years ahead of the other kids, in terms of both knowledge and reading interests. But fortunately, my father and mother had a large library, and I could pursue my own education at home, after enduring school during the day. And fortunately also, by third grade I had discovered the California public library, which in the days of my youth was once pretty good.

But unfortunately, I was stuck in classes where just about everything they taught was inexpressibly boring, because I had already learned it years ago. Read the rest of this entry »

This and That

La metro

Well, I’ve woken up, managed to make a strawberry croissant and a killer cup of coffee (roasted a week ago, ground a few second before using, perfectly brewed, and with a 1/4 tsp vanilla extract, two tsp white sugar, and some Trader Joe’s thick cream). Delicious.

I’m playing hooky from my studies today, and will be leaving my house soon, because it’s now nearly 9 a.m., and it’s 76° F. already. By noon, it will have reached 91°. My little cottage by the beach has many good qualities among it. Air conditioning, alas, is not one of them.

So, when I’m done with this little screed, which should be by the next hour or so, I shall be taking the air conditioned bus down to the air conditioned light rail train, which will in turn take me to the air-conditioned Barnes & Noble, which I will be infesting until about 5 pm, by which time the temp will have declined to an acceptable 82°.

And, in the mean time, I will be writing about this and that: idle thoughts worth examining further. Read the rest of this entry »

More Notes from the First Circle of Hell

No automatic alt text available.

I’ve recently read something that has stirred up something vaguely resembling thought in me, and I’ve decided to put down those thoughts. Bad thoughts! Bad!

Seriously, though, the first of the writings in question is this one entitled Hikikomore and the Politics of Despair. The writer examines the lives of a growing sector of people in Japan who are described with the name in the above title. The name means ‘shut-in’, and refers to a large and growing group in Japan who have pretty much given up on Japanese society, and are living in their parents’ homes, or alone. They seldom go out of their rooms, and are pretty much bound to their computers, their televisions, or their video games.

The ultimate result of this way of life is called kodoyushi. It means lonely death, which is being experienced by more and more of the hikikomore, either as they age, or as they decide to give up. It is indeed a lonely death, because what often happens is that these people die alone, and their bodies are not found until days to weeks later.

The writer suggests that these hikikomore are the inevitable result of our modern society, that they are canaries in the coal mine: outliers who are showing the way that more and more people in the U.S. will be living in the not-too-distant future.

I hate to be the one to tell the writer, but it is unlikely to be as good in the U.S. as in Japan. It seems that in Japan, there is a much better social support network, in which people who can no longer cope are still taken care of. Not so in the U.S.

No, we have had our hikikomore for a long time now. We call them the homeless. Read the rest of this entry »

Cowboys Drank Better Coffee Than Most Hipsters Do Now

cowboy chuck wagon

Yeah. And I can prove it, too.

Ever since my favorite nephew gifted me with a copy of Modernist Cuisine, I’ve been making considerable use of it. This book, in case I haven’t told you, and I believe I actually have, is a graduate level course in food science, and discusses deeply, intelligently, and luminously, the physics, chemistry, and biology of food. While it gets a just a bit deeper in what some have called ‘molecular gastronomy’, and what I call ‘inorganic gastronomy’, than I at present particularly like, I don’t plan on kicking it out of my library any time soon. In fact, I can not recall when I ever in my life received a better gift. Thank you, John.

But I digress somewhat. Included in Volume 4 of its five volumes is a chapter devoted to the subject of coffee. The author’s opinion is that most restaurants and coffee shops have little idea as how to prepare coffee correctly, which is a pity, because the science is simple, and the steps necessary are few, in order to make really good coffee. Read the rest of this entry »